Monday, December 3, 2012

Cold weather sightings

When fall arrives we herp loving individuals know that snake sightings will begin to be few and far between. The best we can hope for is the occasional warm day and rare sightings of some of the hardier snakes, like garter snakes. November 17 brought such a day, the temperature warmed to 73 degrees, the sun was out and the garter snakes were basking.

I drove to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge with some friends and our trip proved productive for snakes, with a grand total of two garter snakes spotted on the 10 mile auto tour. This might not sound like much, but for Missouri this is great. Typically in November it is 30 degrees with no hope of spotting a snake.

My young friend Gage absolutely loves snakes and can't resist an opportunity to look for them just like me. I am always happy to have him join me on outings as his enthusiasm is contagious.

This was the largest of the two snakes we found and Gage jumped out the car to capture it and get it off the road to safety. The snake thanked both of us, first by musking Gage, then biting me. We both laughed at the feisty nature of the snake and then let it go in the grasses next to the road.

We drove on and found a small juvenile basking in the road. It was barely 8 inches in length and quite calm, which is highly unusual for garter snakes. We carefully moved it to safety.

So while I dread cold weather and the lack of snakes available to find for the next 5 months, I will take satisfaction in the rare warm day and the anticipation of a spotting. I will also use this time to read and learn more about the herps I love.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Neonate Timber Rattlesnakes

As many of you know I've been working with Dr. Mark Mills of MWSU on a rattlesnake survey on one of the farms my husbands family owns. We've been P.I.T. tagging rattlesnakes for 2 seasons. Nearly two weeks ago my brother-in-law found a neonate (newborn) rattlesnake hiding under a piece of tin. He did not capture it thinking we weren't interested in tagging the babies. Little did he know it was the babies we are the most interested in tagging. I made a quick trip to the farm, and by the time I got there it was nearly dark. I prayed the snake would still be where he had found it, but had doubts as three hours had already passed. I grabbed a flashlight, my bag and my snake tongs. I flipped over the piece of tin and voila! The snake WAS still there. Such a beautiful little snake. I called Dr. Mills and told him what I had, and he was as excited as I was at the opportunity to tag a newborn.
We agreed to meet at 10:00 AM the next day and process the snake.

(Mark measuring the neonate)
(Safely contained in a snake tube)

This snake measured 15.5 inches in length, weighed 1.36 ounces and is a female. She has one little button and rattle which tells us she has shed once. The average size of newborn timber rattlesnakes is 9 to 13 inches. So this snake is considerably larger than that. Our hypothesis is that this snake was born earlier than is typical for this species. Perhaps sometime the end of July or first of August. We know it is a neonate as the umbilical scar is still visible.

(Umbilical scar)

We released this little darling back to the piece of tin where she was found after P.I.T. tagging her. We took some time and searched the area for additional litter mates to this snake. We did not locate a single other snake of any kind.

Ten days later I was at the farm looking for snakes and found another neonate under the exact same piece of tin. I suspected it was probably the same snake we tagged previously, but decided to capture it anyway. I took it into work with me and called Dr. Mills. He met me at the office and we went to one of MWSU biology labs. He ran his scanner over the snake and it had no tag in it!!!! This was a new snake!!! We were so excited to have another neonate and most likely a litter mate to the one from 10 days ago. We measured her at 16.1 inches and she weighed 1.94 ounces. Again it is a female. We P.I.T. tagged her and I ran back to the farm and released her back to hiding spot. This is such an awesome opportunity for us to be able to tag not one, but two neonates. The data that we can potentially get from these snakes is invaluable. I can hardly wait to see how they do on their own.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Snakes! Why did it have to be Snakes?

This famous line from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, reflects the sentiment of many folks in response to the mention of snakes. In an earlier Project Noah blog post this week by Neil Dazet, we learned that almost 51% of American people have a fear of snakes. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have heard, ‘the only good snake is a dead snake.” But did you know that snakes are such a valuable part of our environment we would be hard pressed to live without them? In fact there are many people who now owe their life to a snake!
What is venom? The American Heritage Dictionary of Science defines venom as, “a poisonous substance secreted by special glands of some snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, and similar animals, who inject it into their prey or enemy by biting or stinging.” In the scientific world, venom is injected, while poison is ingested. Therefore spiders and snakes are considered venomous rather than poisonous. Because of the many components of venom and the unique properties of each specific to the many different venomous species, researchers are studying the natural pharmacy of potential medicines that may be used in the near future to treat and even cure diseases.

For instance, if you or a loved one have ever suffered a heart attack and have been treated with either of the drugs Eptifibatide or Tirofiban, then you owe many thanks to snakes. Eptifibatide is a drug that was developed from the venom of rattlesnakes and tirofiban was developed from the venom of the African saw-scaled viper. Venom is a complex mixture of proteins and varies upon its makeup from different snake species. Those same proteins that make venom a deadly cocktail when injected by a snake, can be used by doctors in modified amounts to treat human disease. The two drugs mentioned above are used to halt heart attacks when given within the first three hours of symptoms.
Ancrod was developed from the venom of the Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma) pictured left, and has been used to help prevent deadly stroke-causing clots during difficult surgeries.
Contortrostatin, a protein found in the venom of the Southern copperhead (Askistrodon contortrix) below left, is showing much promise in treating breast cancer, and the venom of the African black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) on the right is being studied for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

But snakes are important to us in other ways too. Do you like to eat? Of course you do, but what do snakes have to do with food? Snakes are the best form of rodent control and have the unique ability to go where the rodents can go. None of the traps mankind has invented, the cats we have spread around the world or even the birds of prey, can get to the rodents like snakes, or equal the number of rodents consumed by snakes. Even if you don’t like to eat your veggies, the meat animals you consume rely on the vegetation/grain produced on farms. Without snakes to control the rodent population, vegetation/grain production can greatly be impacted. Crop loss and ruination of stored grain by rodents and their feces and urine can range upwards to 100% on some farms during periods of rodent population explosions. Grow your own vegetables and fruits? Many of our smaller snakes feed on slugs, snails and other garden pests and they are non-toxic and do not cause cancer!
Did you know that snakes could help protect your home from fire? It is estimated that about 20% of all house fires in the U.S. of unknown origin can be attributed to damage caused by rodents chewing on wiring and other electrical components.
Because of their constant need to gnaw to keep their teeth in check, rodents may also cause structural and other damage to your home or property. And let’s face it, if a poison is toxic enough to kill a small mammal; is that really something you want to ever have near your children and family pets?
What about disease? Hanta virus occurs naturally throughout most of North and South America; it is airborne, and in the absence of prompt medical attention, its infections are usually fatal. The main hosts for the hanta virus are rodents. Rodents carry many other diseases that can be transmitted to humans (zoonoses), among them: Rabies (Lyssavirus), Plague (Yersinia pestis), Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), Leptospirosis (Weil’s syndrome), Salmonellosis, Tuberculosis and many of the tick-bourn diseases like Lyme’s Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Do you like to hunt or fish? Snakes affect the quality and numbers of game animals available. They help to prevent diseases in these animals and promote stronger stock by weeding out weak, diseased or old members. They can also affect the food available for game animals to eat. Large timber rattlesnakes show a food preference for squirrels. In preparation for winter, squirrels collect and bury nuts, seeds and acorns in underground stashes. Other animals like deer and turkey are then deprived of these foods except for the occasional accidental uncovering of a poorly buried shallow stash.
Nature is a system of checks and balances. If you remove one component from an ecosystem, the balance shifts in favor of another. And while humans like to think we have control over life; when we tinker with these systems we start a cascade of events the consequences of which we may not even realize for months, years, decades or even generations. In the United States, it is easy to learn the venomous snakes from the nonvenomous and how to take measures to reduce or even prevent human-snake encounters. There is NEVER a good reason to kill a snake in any of our protected parks and natural habitats….or to harm those we encounter in our yards or homes unless they are presenting an immanent threat. If the snake is outside and you keep your yard free of debris and well-maintained, the snake has no reason to stay and will have moved on in an hour or so. If the snake is indoors and you know it is a harmless species, you may use a broom and dust pan to gently urge the snake into a trash can or other lidded container, place the lid on the container and then safely carry the snake to the outdoors and release it. If it is a venomous snake in your house, remove pets and people, try to secure the room the snake is in and call a professional. Do not try to capture or kill the snake…this is how bites occur and can sometimes prove a deadly mistake.
Remember, snakes do a valuable service in the environment and the costs of killing them far outweigh the costs of protecting them and the benefits living with them provide in the long run. So in answer to the question posed in title of this blog, I know why it has to be snakes and I feel very fortunate to share my world with them.
From left: As its name suggests, the gray ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) preys on rats, other rodents and the occasional bird and/or eggs; if you are fortunate enough to find a Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) in your yard, you won’t be as troubled by slugs, snails and other pests eating your veggies and decorative plants!; like most snakes, the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a shy species that rarely strikes unless confronted or disturbed and its venom and has been used to develop life-saving drugs for heart patients; who knows what other cures and treatments may be teased from this majestic beauty?
Author: Lisa Powers, herpetologist and Project Noah Ranger researched and wrote the blog post you just read for the Center of Snake Conservation/Project Noah Snake Week.
Thank you Lisa for allowing us to share this awesome, and informative article with our readers here.
To learn more about the Center for Snake Conservation please visit the following link CSC. Become a member and support the continued conservation of snakes. 
Project Noah has created an awesome database for sharing photographs and information of organisms found throughout the World. This database will provide a valuable resource to educators, naturalist, biologists, ecologists, herpetologists, etc. for wildlife education and awareness. If you are interested, login to their page and begin posting your photos.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Missouri State Fair---Discovery Room

Each year in August the Missouri State Fair runs for 10 days. It is a huge festival-like atmosphere complete with pig races, funnel cakes, corn dogs and musical entertainment. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a building on the fairgrounds that is used to educate the visiting public about various aspects of nature. There are huge fish tanks with numerous native fish swimming in them. There are a variety of native snakes and frogs on display and then there is the discovery room that allows hands-on activities for families.....with a focus on children. There are also daily live demonstrations that might include fishing cleaning and cooking, bald eagles, outdoor native gardening, etc . MDC employees and volunteers staff both areas of this facility and speak with thousands of guests over the 10 day event.

As a naturalist I was given the task of educating our guests about some of Missouri snakes. With a speckled kingsnake (borrowed from the Chillicothe, MO office) and a red milksnake as my constant companions many people were drawn to my table to see these amazing animals up close. Most wanted the opportunity to touch a snake, many for the first time. The laughter and squeals of delight were music to my ears. I love such excitement over an animal that is often feared or loathed. I must say the majority of our guests had nothing but good things to say about our snakes. We had a few people who refused to come near the snake, or that uttered under their breath "the only good snake is a dead snake" or "I kill everyone I see". I chose to ignore those offensive comments and chalk them up to ignorance and the poor teachings of their upbringing.

I received many questions about Missouri snakes and they ranged from......

"What kind of snake is that?" (I think I answered this question no less than 1,000 times)
"Is it poisonous?" (I had to respond to this one hundreds of time with "No this snake is not venomous.")
"Do they bite?" (My response: "Anything with teeth can bite, but this snake will only bite if we threaten it or hurt it.")
"Can I hold it?"("No, but you can touch it")
"Can't you tell how old a rattlesnake is by counting the rattles?" (No this is not an accurate way to age a rattlesnake, as rattlesnakes generate a new rattle each time they shed and they may shed up to 3 or 4 times a year depending on how much they are eating.)
"Is it legal to kill snakes in Missouri?" ( No it isn't, we do not have a snake hunting season and all snakes are protected, whether they are venomous or non-venomous)

I also heard many stories, and I must say this is my favorite:

A woman told me that if you cut a rattlesnake in half and bury one half in the front yard, and the other half in the back yard the snake will grow back together and leave." I had heard this myth before and it has persisted for well over a 100 years. I explained that it was physically impossible for a snake to regrow half its body once it had been severed. She was persistent that it did indeed happen to her mother. After her mother killed a snake by chopping it in half with a shovel, they buried half in the front yard and half in the back yard. The next day the holes were empty. I explained to her that if that were the case then predators are probably to blame. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons and even neighborhood dogs would absolutely dig up a freshly killed rattlesnake and consume it. She did not seem convinced and I believe she left my table thinking I was a lunatic for not believing her completely rational story. 

Another story:

A woman came to my table with 4 or 5 young boys and told me that when you kill a rattlesnake it is important to place the head in a jar. This protects you from the snake who can still kill you. I know what she was trying to say....that even after death the rattlesnake can and will deliver a venomous bite if handled incorrectly.  I told her the best thing to do is to leave the rattlesnake alone and then no one will get bitten.

Another Story:

This story I heard from 2 different men, at two separate times on Friday. They both described a large snake resembling a black snake, but it had a pattern. They said the snakes were well over 6 or 7 feet long and as big around as a mans forearm. They explained that the snakes were after their fowl. The first man claims the snake was in his hen house and was wrapped around an adult chicken trying to kill it. He wanted to know what it was. I said it sounds like a black snake, but black snakes won't kill something that they cannot eat, and a black snake cannot eat a full size adult chicken. He insisted it wasn't a black snake, and he killed it and threw it in a ditch. At this point I didn't know what to say so I responded...."well if you are sure it isn't a black snake then perhaps it was someones escaped pet like a large boa or python. If they are large enough, they can certainly eat an adult chicken." He seemed happy with that answer and left. Two hours or so later another man described the same type of snake and it was after his guineas. He was from a completely different county than the first man. He said he pulled a baby guinea out the snakes mouth and saved it. He captured the snake, and had his wife take a picture of him holding it. He explained that the snake had a pattern and didn't look anything like a black snake. He claimed he found two dead adult guineas and he was blaming the snake for their death.  I asked him if he could email me a picture, and he said I have the camera with me and I can show you! I looked at the pictures and it was clearly a black snake with a pattern. I explained that some black snakes, for unknown reasons will retain their juvenile pattern into adulthood. I showed him a picture of a juvenile black rat snake and the pattern that it has, and he said "THAT'S IT!" This snake was indeed huge, well over 6 feet in length. I asked him if he had actually seen the snake kill his adult guineas, and he said no that he did not. I explained that most likely what had happened was that the snake was attracted to the food and water available in the area where he keeps the guineas, and that while the snake was attempting to eat the young, smaller guinea it would be physically impossible for it to eat an adult, so my suspicion was that the older guineas succumbed to heat exhaustion. He seemed somewhat satisfied with that answer. I asked him what he did with the snake and he said he did not kill the snake, but instead relocated it further away from his home. I found it extremely strange and ironic that not one, but two individuals had the same story to tell. I still say the first mans snake was a large black snake that had retained its pattern...and unfortunately for that snake it did not survive the mans ire.

These questions and stories just reinforce in me the need for education when it comes to snakes. Many of us grew up on the fears,  myths and old wives tales handed down to us by our parents and grandparents as well as other well meaning adults. These myths and tales often do more harm than good. We learn to fear animals that deserve our respect. We kill out of fear or misunderstanding, or sometimes out of hate alone. Our next generation will hopefully come to realize through education and hands-on moments like these; the importance of these animals and learn to understand that the tales told to them by their adult counterparts, may be just that ....tales.

My two days at the fair were long, fun-filled days. I was able to share with our guests some of my favorite animals and teach them a little about their diversity and importance to the ecology of the lands around us. As well as why it is vastly important that we exercise tolerance and acceptance when it comes to these animals, we truly do not have to like something in order to recognize that it is wrong to destroy it. Kudos to all the kids (an adults) that ventured over to my table and touched a snake or allowed their children to do so even if they couldn't bring themselves to do so. Fascination is often the first step towards conservation. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Let's Bring A Stop to Rattlesnake Roundups

Rattlesnake Round-ups have received a lot of publicity as of late, most of it in a negative light. There is reason for this; as we have learned that the practice of rounding up rattlesnakes and killing them in the name of protecting the general public is an outdated practice at best and cruel at its worst. There is no documentation that supports the need to carry out a practice of killing rattlesnakes in large numbers to protect an unsuspecting population is necessary. Most rattlesnakes are removed from areas where few if any humans live, therefore confrontation between humans and rattlesnakes are at a minimum. Yet the individuals who participate in this outdated practice will defend their right to do so and use false information to justify it.

Rattlesnake roundups began in Okeene,Oklahoma as early as 1939 and are still carried on as a tradition in this town. Rattlesnake round-ups spread like wildfire through many of the southern states as well as a few eastern states, including Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Pennsylvania. Rattlesnake roundups were originally started as a way to control what was considered an over population of a potentially deadly animal. Settlers feared for their families, and their livestock. Many individuals would regularly capture, kill and bury rattlesnakes in mass graves that often contained 1,000's of snakes. Some areas even encouraged shoot-outs among marksmen where they would test their skills with a gun by shooting rattlesnakes. They competed for prize money and many 1'000's of snakes were killed in this manner. The last known town to participate in this practice was Clairemont, Texas. Fortunately this practice has ceased with the last competition being held in 1989. Now if we can just convince the remaining rattlesnake round-ups to cease their practices of torturing, maiming and killing rattlesnakes in the name of sport.

So what exactly goes on at a rattlesnake round-up?

 The few remaining round-ups are held once a year and these festivals are often sponsored by groups such as the Jaycee's or Optimist Clubs of the town. Over the years the proceeds of these roundups have been used to fund various charities. This in and of itself is a commendable, but what many fail to realize is the atrocities that take place at these events. Rattlesnakes are often gathered months in advance of the festival, and are kept without food or adequate water. Many are kept in small containers and never allowed out of their captive situation until the day of the festival. Those that survive this treatment will be put on display at the roundup. They are thrown into a large pit, piled on top of each other and then kicked around by round-uppers.

Then once at the festival, the real horror begins. At a few of the roundups the snakes are frozen for up to two hours in order to slow their reflexes to make them easier to handle. Then they have their fangs pulled out with pliers and their mouths sewn shut. It is these snakes that are passed around for photo opportunities with the public. Want your picture taken with a "deadly rattlesnake?" This is your chance. Does it make you feel brave or daring to hold something this lethal in your arms and have your picture taken with it? This sewn up tortured version of a rattlesnake is nothing but a shell of its former glory. These snakes are near death from stress and you still feel brave?

Check out this video footage of what REALLY happens to these snakes All Sewn UP

 Eventually the snake WILL die from his treatment and then his humiliation is far from over as he will now be transferred to the killing floor and have his head chopped off with a dull machete and passed around for the audience to witness how their nervous system still allows the snake to flick its tongue in and out. They will also cut its heart out and show the audience how it will continue to beat even after death. Why is this necessary? What twisted enjoyment does a person get from this practice? Many roundups even allow audience members to decapitate and skin their own snake, and once you've shown your courage in committing such a feat you are then encouraged to soak your hand in the blood of the snake and leave your bloody palm print on the wall for all to witness.

The practice of removing these snakes from the wild is highly questionable, as many will use gasoline to pour down rodent burrows to encourage the snake to leave the burrow. What round uppers fail to consider is the wildlife that is often sharing that same burrow with the snake. Animals such as the endangered gopher tortoise as well as other turtles are not as quick to respond and leave the now suffocating burrow and will perish in the fumes within the burrow. Many other animals, such as various toads will also die from asphyxiation within the burrows when they are overcome with fumes. This practice is illegal but never enforced. Many other snakes are captured as they come out of hibernation. Round uppers locate hibernation sites and monitor those sites and when early spring returns they descend on those locations like vultures at an all-you-can eat roadkill buffet. As the snakes move closer to the entrance of these hibernaculums they will capture vast amounts of snakes and place them in bags, or other containers.  Some are transported to people who purchase the snakes for meat and they are paid so much per pound. The majority however are destined to end up at the roundups still alive.

These round-ups have been going on for over 60 years and each year 1,000's of snakes are removed from the wild. And each year the snakes are becoming harder and harder to locate, this should tell us that the snakes population is falling. In some areas the number of snakes have fallen so dramatically that they are considered extirpated from those areas. Most round-uppers now travel over large areas to try and locate snakes to supply the round-ups and many will cross state lines and bring snakes in from other states where it is illegal to capture, or harm these snakes. Often rattlesnake round-ups award prize money to the largest snake brought into the event. So there is good reason to seek out large snakes, and if those snakes can no longer be found within their own area, they will take them from other areas, legally or illegally, it seems to make no difference.

 While I am able to understand that the small towns that host these round-ups depend on the revenue that they bring in. I also understand that charities benefit from the proceeds donated to them from the round-ups. In fact many of us on the forefront trying to bring about changes to these events, fully understand the financial needs of these towns. We in no way want to keep money out of the towns or away from the charities. But we also know there is a better way. We can change these events into an educational event that honors the snake for the icon that it is. No where else in the world do these snakes occur than in the western hemisphere. The western diamondback, which is the snake most frequently targeted is SYNONYMOUS with the wild west and Indian legends. Native Americans have traditionally honored the rattlesnake and held them in high esteem. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a race for destroying something so revered.

Why should we care? What good are rattlesnakes?

Rattlesnakes are one of the most effective predators in existence. They come equipped with venom and a delivery system that is extremely efficient. They come further equipped with heat sensing pits located between their nostrils and mouth. These pits allow them to locate warm blooded prey, even in total darkness. The venom is designed to subdue their prey. The venom acts quickly and also begins the digestion process. The snake is able to locate their prey by flicking their tongue in and out of their mouth. They scrape their tongue across an organ in the roof of their mouth called a Jacobson's organ. This organ is extremely sensitive to scent and will communicate to the snake where food is. They are excellent at controlling rodents in a given area and do so with such efficiency that they are likely to out compete other snakes. Rodents carry many diseases including hanta virus and the plague. Before you begin to think that the plague, or black death as it is often called is a disease from our ancient past, take a look at this photo. We are seeing an increase in incidences of plague and this in direct proportion to the absence of snakes. We as an educated society need to learn to respect our wild animals, even if they come in a form we are not comfortable with or that we perhaps fear. Fear is never justification for killing another animal. Hatred is never a reason to kill another animal. Lack of understanding or tolerance is never a good reason to kill.

 I mentioned above the importance these snakes have in controlling wayward rodent populations, but did you know they are important to humans for an entirely different reason? They provide treatments and cures for many diseases affecting humans. The venom is used to make many medications to treat vast amounts of diseases including diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and blood clots. Without the snake we lose the venom that is used to make the medications that is making life tolerable for many humans.

It is past time for a change, for if we do not make those changes the western diamondback, and the eastern diamondback will be an animal of myth and mystery rather than a reality. These animals cannot survive the onslaught of habitat destruction and human persecution forever. Sooner or later they will go the way of the Do-Do and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. We are all able to recognize that these events called roundups in their current form are cruel and serve no real purpose other than to entertain a misinformed public. I have to question anyone who gets enjoyment out of the torment and torture of an innocent animal. If the animal in question was a dog or cat the outpouring of support and outrage would be unprecedented. Lets all rise up against these events and show the organizers that they do not have to kill in order to bring money into their towns. They don't have to treat these animals with cruelty in order to educate.

View the following videos then consider joining the facebook page Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups (RARR) to share your commitment to conserving these vitally important components to the ecosystem that we call rattlesnakes.

Orry Martin talks on Roundups
World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup
Don't Lose Your Head

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Demise of Snapperfest

It appears that Snapperfest, the notoriously cruel "family fun" event that takes place in Ohio County Indiana, has been cancelled forever. So far, not too many news websites have picked up on this story but, an online news catalog that specializes in reporting about all things reptile and amphibian talks about it in some detail. "SNAPPERFEST IS DEAD!!!!!! Today Collette Adkins Giese, the Herptofauna lawyer for the Center for Biodiversity got a call from a DNR enforcement official who said that they've been told the event is cancelled and that they are closely monitoring the situation to ensure that it is actually cancelled. So a victory for snappers. And on their behalf a big thanks to all the people who created petitions, promoted them, went to the various meetings that resulted in this decision. You know who you are. As Collette said "I was late to the game, everyone else deserves the praise." But as the DNR says"They are closely monitoring to ensure that it is actually canceled." Which to me shows they don't trust their word as much as many of us do. So keep up with your monitoring of advertising, planned visits, whatever. Just do it quietly. Let's give them a chance to be true to their word.

 Allen Salzberg Publisher/Editor HerpDigest: The Only Free Internet-Only Weekly Newsletter that reports on the Latest Reptile and Amphibian Scientific and Conservation News Go to HerpDigest to subscribe.

Committee Chair Conservation & Media Committees New York Turtle & Tortoise Society Member of the IUCN Species Survival Group for Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles" What does this mean? Between the sudden demise of Snapperfest and the reformation of the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup, which has now become the Claxton, GA Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, it has become apparent that the protection of "less charismatic" animals such as rattlesnakes and snapping turtles is actually being recognized as having importance nearly on par with that of more popular animals, such as dolphins and tigers. People are no longer focusing solely on how "cute" or intelligent an animal may seem when advocating for its protection. They want all wild animals protected for the appreciation of future generations. Think about that. The worm may have finally turned. Earth's biodiversity may yet stand a chance. I hope that we are not being to optimistic in thinking so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Northern Fence Lizard

This prehistoric-looking little lizard is a Northern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) which is a subspecies of the Eastern Fence Lizard. They occur from New York, south to South Carolina, and west to Texas. In Missouri they are called Prairie Lizards (Sceloporus consobrinus),biologists have revised its taxonomy. Now, it's considered a distinct species. They are common and found in the Southern half of the state.

The ones in this article were photographed in Tennessee where they are still considered Northern Fence Lizards.

These lizards reach up to 7 inches in length with females being bigger than males. The males are dark gray or brown with very little or no pattern visible. They also possess bright blue belly patches and throat during mating season. Females have an obvious zig-zag or wavy pattern across their back and a white belly. There will be orange or red at the base of the tail. Some specimens may have some faint blue markings along their side.

Sometime between April and August males will seek females and mating will occur. Females will produce two separate clutches of up to 17 eggs. Males will bob their heads and do push-ups as a form of a mating dance. Mating will only occur if the female allows the male to approach her. Females may mate as early as one year of age but will only be able to produce one clutch of eggs. In the second year of life she will begin producing a second clutch.  Even though this species has been renamed and categorized in Missouri, the reproductive cycle is the same. The first clutch of eggs in Missouri are laid in May or June with the second clutch being laid in July. The female will dig a hole in loose dirt and lay her eggs in layers. A few eggs on the bottom layer, covered by dirt, then more eggs, covered with dirt, then more eggs and more dirt until all the eggs are laid. The total depth of the nest will be 4 inches or less. This species is even capable of retaining the eggs within their body and put off egg laying. This is beneficial during the second brood as it shortens the time needed for them to incubate and hatch. This allows the young lizards to grow some before the first frost sets in. These little lizards rarely live beyond three years in the wild as they fall victim to predators or harsh environments. They may live several more years in captivity.

These lizards are most active early in the day from about 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM, once the day becomes hot they go for cover  and will become active again towards dusk. They begin appearing in March and will remain active until October (weather permitting). Males are territorial and will often protect a small range that contains a few females. These are extremely fast lizards and difficult to catch or approach. As soon as they see a potential threat they run rapidly for cover or to opposite side of a tree or post.
Look for them along forest edges or within open woodlands. They are very common on rocky glades. They will hide out in fallen trees, old logs and stumps and in rock piles or brush piles. They will use "lizard highways" which will include fence rails, split rail fence, firewood piles, lumber piles, and railroad ties.
Fence lizards are beneficial to humans in the form of insect control, as they eat a wide variety of insects and spiders. They will also consume centipedes and snails.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Radio Show about Opp, Alabama's "Rattlesnake Rodeo"

Last night, Michael Crabtree, who hosts a reptile related radio show, invited me to converse with himself and Randy "Ransnakeman" Jones about the events that took place in Opp, Alabama during what they call their "Rattlesnake Rodeo". This is one of the last remaining rattlesnake festivals in the East where the rattlesnakes are still mistreated and killed. Randy attended and has quite a story to tell. So listen in on this podcast and you'll find out some gruesome facts that have remained elusive for years. Ransnake at the Roundup There are only two lethal rattlesnake festivals left in the East and Opp, Alabama is one of them. Given that there have been so many outright lies propagated by the organizers of this "Rodeo" about regulations, mistreatment, and even killing indicates that they are aware how showcasing animal abuse in the same manner as roundups in Texas and Oklahoma would cast them in a very negative light. This could actually work towards the advantage of reform. The biggest obstacle would be the leather contractors that the town is currently obligated towards. The listing of the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake as an endangered species would certainly end the "Rodeo" in its current form and perhaps then they would be open to suggestions.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Timber Rattlesnake Research Continues

The research continues on the farm my husbands family owns. This year so far 8 timber rattlesnakes (Crotlus horridus) have been found.

One evening a friend of mine joined me to search for these elusive snakes. We also had her niece (age 7) and a young friend from my 4H Herpetology group named Gage (age 10) with us. After a couple of hours and overturning hundreds of rocks it was nearing dark and all we had to show for ourselves was a couple of ringneck snakes. We made the decision to head back to the car and leave as we were losing light. We walked by a large pile of limestone rocks and I poked my stick under one particularly large rock and heard the tell-tale sound of a rattlesnake buzzing its rattle. We both got excited as I attempted to turn the rock over with my snake stick. It became apparent that this was not going to happen, as the rock was far too heavy. We desperately wanted to see this snake that was hiding oh so close yet seemingly oh so far away. I told the kids to step back and announced I was going to flip this rock by hand. Now normally I would not even consider doing something like this, but I felt certain it could be done safely in this instance. The rock was 5 or 6 inches thick and had a sort of lip molded into it. I decided if I grabbed that lip and lifted I would not have to actually put my hand directly "under" the rock. I carefully lifted this rock, it proved heavier than I originally thought and I had to seriously put my back into it. Cindy excitedly announces that there were TWO rattlesnakes under the rock. I got so excited I nearly pee'd my pants and dropped the rock. Fortunately I was able to control my excited emotions and kept a firm hold on the rock and then gently let it fall back towards me. Sure enough there sat two gorgeous timber rattlesnakes, coiled up next to each other. Much debate took place about whether it was a male and female, or if they were same sex and just happened to be there together.

Gage and Cindy's niece were both as excited as we were about seeing these snakes. After making sure both children were a safe distance from the snake, we had to decide what to do. Should be let the snakes go, or should we capture them so we could check them for P.I.T. tags? The decision was made to capture them. Cindy and her niece returned to the car to retrieve the bagger, and I remained with Gage and kept an eye on the snakes. Several minutes after Cindy left, one of the snakes became antsy and decided to depart. I simply couldn't let it get away, so I managed to keep it there with the snake stick. I did not want to pin it down and risk hurting it, so I just had to keep guiding it back towards the other one with the tip of the stick. Finally Cindy returned and coaxing them into the bag went off without a hitch. We carried the bag back to the shed and found a large blue barrel to put the snakes in. It took us awhile to get them out of the bag and into the barrel, but we finally managed to get the job done. The fact that they came flying at a high rate of speed out of the bag, right at my chest and then when gravity kicked in they dropped straight down into the barrel did nothing to ease my frazzled nerves at handling such a highly venomous snake. I breathed a sigh of relief, and was thankful that the snakes didn't actually hit me in the chest. Once they were safely contained, we had to laugh, and joke about how inept we had to have appeared.

We contacted Dr. Mills our local herpetologist, and the one who has been helping me document the rattlesnakes on our farm. We made arrangements to meet early in the morning to document the data from these two snakes. Gage gained permission to miss school so he could take part in this educational activity.

Gage and I met Dr. Mills at 8:00AM and got started immediately with getting data from the snakes. Dr. Mills and I measured, weighed, and sexed both snakes and discovered that these two snakes were both females and neither one had been previously P.I.T. tagged. So these were two new snakes. We currently have 5 females and one male tagged on this farm. The first female was 2'8" and the second was 3'. Both seemed fat and healthy and most likely of breeding condition.

Gage was our data-meister and recorded all the numbers we threw at him. Gage absolutely loves herps. and has a real passion and genuine interest in learning about them.

Once all the data was recorded we returned both snakes back to the rock where they were found and released them. The snake stick is posed on the rock to show you the size of the rock they were under.
I am so thrilled that the population seems to be doing well at the location.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Five-Lined Skink

Five-Lined Skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) are one of the few lizards that live in NW Missouri. The majority of the lizard species to call Missouri home are found in the southern regions of the state. It is always exciting therefore to find one of these beautiful little skinks. They are fast moving, often secretive species that can be found around ponds, lakes, cellars, green houses, rock piles and log piles. They grow up 8.5 inches in total length. young males have a bright blue tail that fades to light blue or fades completely as they age. The one pictured here has an extremely faded blue tail, so he is an older juvenile male that has almost reached adult maturity. Some specimens lose the stripes with age as well. Older mature males have a dark orange head which has also earned this species the common name of Red-headed skink.

These skinks range as far north as southern Ontario, and as far south as Florida. They can be found nearly anywhere in the Eastern United States. In Canada they are endangered and therefore protected there. In Missouri it is legal to possess them as a pet, but they can be difficult to raise and often hide making them hard to observe. Truly they are best left in their natural habitats and observed there.

Adult males can be extremely territorial and will often act aggressively towards any intruding males within their territory. Adult males will tolerate females, and juvenile males within their given territories as they are not viewed as potential competition for mates. Males will approach females that they intend to mate with and bite down on the neck of the female. He will then use his tail to line up both of their cloacal openings. Males possess a hemipenes, which is essentially like possessing two penis'. He will insert one hemipene at a time to fertilize the female. Fertilization is internal and the female will lay eggs sometime in May or June. The female will guard the eggs which cuts down on predation and increases the odds that her offspring will survive. She will typically choose old rotting stumps, logs, under rocks, or under leaf litter as a prime egg laying location. She will deposit up to 18 eggs that will hatch in a couple of months. Once hatched they will reach sexual maturity in about 2 to 3 years, and will live up to 6 years.

(Male and Female cuddling up to each other)

Like many lizard species, skinks will drop their tails if grabbed. This affords them a certain amount of protection from predation. A potential predator who grabs the skink by the tail will find himself with a mouthful of tail and little else as the lizard beats a hasty retreat. The tail will regenerate itself, by gradually growing with each molt that the lizard experiences.

I recently received a phone call at the office where I work from a gentleman who was accustomed to seeing these lizards in abundance in his yard had noticed this year he had no skinks. He wanted to know if there was some place he could buy these lizards or could find these lizards to restock his property. He missed the skinks and could not understand where they could have gone. I asked him if he had altered his landscape in any way....he said he had not. He had not noticed any increase in predators either. I told him there was no way to buy these lizards in Missouri as it was illegal to sell them. I also told him that finding them in the wild in abundance would be difficult and there was no relocation or restocking program for things like skinks. I also advised him that it isn't a good idea to do that sort of thing anyway, as it increases the potential for diseases to spread to your local populations. I suggested to him that the lack of rain we've been experiencing was probably the culprit for his skinks suddenly disappearing. They are moisture loving lizards and probably could no longer find adequate damp locations to thrive. I told him to be patient and that hopefully when the rains come, the skinks will return. I was thrilled that he loved his little skinks so much and I hope they do come back for him.

This is the first year we've noticed them in our backyard, and we've found several near our goldfish pond and a few inside the greenhouse. I hope they are happily eating numerous insects and helping control harmful insect populations. It is always fun to spot one of these little beauties as it tries to hide in the brush pile, or rocks long our pond. Those bright orange heads and bright blue tails give them away however.